Rosa Meehan: Fisheries board has prime opportunity for smarter management

Salmon, and fishing for salmon, is an iconic aspect of life in much of Alaska -- so are conflicts about who is entitled to fish for how much and when (allocation issues).

Those who engage in the various salmon fisheries; which include subsistence, sport, personal use, and commercial, typically identify a deep cultural connection to the activity as well as direct and indirect economic benefits. While salmon enrich our lives, conflicts among user groups run deep, notably in Cook Inlet where the various fisheries are accessible and visible. One can stand at the mouth of the Kenai River and simultaneously observe the drift fleet offshore, set netters along the beach and sport and personal use fisheries in the river.

Salmon allocation issues will again be in front of the Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting now in Anchorage. Kenai River king salmon, which have declined dramatically in the last several years, will be a focal point of discussion. The Board of Fisheries will no doubt hear extensive and emotional testimony about the importance salmon fisheries. Advocacy groups are lined up with their perspectives polished for presentation to the board.

The core issues surrounding king salmon remain the same and relate to the tension between sport fishing interests advocating for king salmon return to spawning rivers (notably the Kenai River) and commercial fisheries protecting their opportunities to fish for sockeye salmon. The conflict comes from incidental catch of king salmon in the sockeye fishery. Some advocate extreme measures, like the proposal to close down all commercial set-net fisheries. Such an "all or none" type of approach neglects the complexity of salmon behavior and how salmon move around in their world.

Instead, the board has the opportunity and responsibility to evaluate all potential sources of mortality and identify mitigation or management measures to minimize such losses in a way that preserves fishing opportunities. No small task.

A key to working through all the complexities is the shared interest by all in maintaining king salmon in the Kenai River. The board has the benefit of years of effort to protect habitat in the river and regulate sport-fishing take. Similarly, the set-net fishery has been controlled through timing restrictions and closures. The board also has new information, such as the telemetry information on salmon movements in the nearshore zone (provided by David Welch at the recent Alaska Marine Science Symposium in Anchorage), which refined our understanding of differences between king and sockeye salmon as they travel back to their spawning rivers.

At the same time, large gaps remain in our collective understanding of what happens to salmon while out to sea. King salmon stocks throughout the state are declining, an indication of something going on in the marine environment.

Bringing all of this information together, the board has the opportunity to significantly improve out-of-date management plans. The board also has an opportunity to incorporate flexibility into their plans to allow updates as new information becomes available. A focus on science and an overall management goal of maintaining a healthy king salmon population in the Kenai River is something we should all support.

Rosa Meehan is a member of the Daily News guest editorial board. She is retired from a long career in U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska and now has her own environmental consulting service.